For 20 years, Mary Skinner climbed the corporate ladder in financial communications, at one point working on the 106th floor of Two World Trade Center, before moving to San Francisco to be close to her family. In the months leading up to 9/11, her life was in limbo. Living with her parents, she wrestled with an internal conflict about her professional future. “I spent so many years doing what I ‘should’ do,” she says. She wanted to return to New York, and even flew there that summer for an interview with a financial services start-up. When the ‘no-thanks’ letter arrived, her disappointment was sharp.
But as the catastrophe unfolded, Skinner’s hesitation disappeared. “I knew friends were caught on certain floors and didn’t make it,” she says. “I felt: I need to be there right now. I’ve got to go back. I had devoted my talent, heart and brain cells to helping somebody make a little more money on currency arbitrage. In the face of what was going on in the world, I felt like, that’s a sin.”
Two months later, Skinner boarded a plane for New York – without a job or a place to live, and for the first time in her professional life, without a plan.
She found temp office work, reconnected with old friends and took writing classes. She enrolled in a documentary filmmaking class at the New School, wanting to make a film about her Polish-born, Catholic mother, Klotylda, who was orphaned and imprisoned during World War II and cared for by strangers afterwards. Klotylda wouldn’t agree to be her subject. Haunted by her mother’s experiences, Skinner continued with her research, uncovering more stories of children saved by heroic strangers.
That winter, a friend showed Skinner one of The New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” – small, idiosyncratic obituaries the paper ran daily for everyone who died in the attacks. This one was about a young woman named Mary who had just begun work with a financial services start-up. That Tuesday, Mary was on the 105th floor of One WTC, preparing for her first big project. Reading the obit, Skinner felt suddenly cold. “That was the job I’d applied for,” she says. “The obituary talked about how everyone loved Mary, how good she was at her work, how excited she was. She was in the office early to set up, which is just what I would have done. What if everything had worked out exactly the way I wanted it to?”
Shocked, Skinner stepped up her search for material that reflected her mother’s wartime experience, while continuing to study filmmaking. When Skinner stumbled upon Irena Sendler’s story, she knew she’d found her focus. Sendler, a Polish social worker, had smuggled hundreds of Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto using an extensive, underground network of rescuers. Now in her 90s, Sendler lived in a nursing home in Warsaw.
Documenting Sendler’s story became Skinner’s obsession. To raise money, Skinner sent proposals to film companies, historic archives, cultural attaches. Her teacher said, “tell them you’re making a documentary for PBS.”
“I had become so inhibited from my corporate training –so careful, so cautious, so hypervigilant – I had to learn to ask, ask, ask,” Skinner says. Finally, the American Center for Polish Culture, helped to fund her first visit to Poland in 2003 and connected her with Sendler and others who were part of her project. During nearly eight years of film-making and multiple trips to Poland, she fought bureaucratic snafus and language barriers. She picked up temp work to pay the bills, and spent all her free time on fundraising. In 2006, Skinner’s mother died, without warning, and Sendler died in 2008 while Skinner was still working on the film. But in 2010, on the 100th anniversary of Sendler’s birth, Skinner’s documentary, In the Name of their Mothers, debuted at Warsaw’s Kamienica Theatre.
The film’s reception was “beyond anything I could have imagined,” Skinner says. “But I didn’t feel elated. I was frayed, out of money and scared to death.” In the US, the film was rejected from film festival competitions (a DVD release in Poland broke conventional festival rules), but won multiple European prizes. Skinner started showing her film at churches, schools and libraries. The philanthropist Tad Taube, a major PBS donor, happened to attend one of the screenings and was so moved that he arranged for Skinner to meet with the head of programming at the local PBS affiliate. That day, Skinner came with a PowerPoint presentation, prepared to make the most important pitch of her life, but as she sat down with the station chief at a polished table surrounded by staffers, he said, “This is a powerful film. We want to ask you if you will allow us to take it national.” In the Name of Their Mothers had its U.S. debut on Sunday May 1, 2011, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Skinner has a trove of World War II stories, and is now branching out into educational film projects. Making the film was a way to honor her mother, but it also allowed Skinner to reinvent her own life. She was never meant for a corporate career, she says. “If you’re a daffodil, you can’t bloom a rose,” she said. “You’re a daffodil. It took me a long time to finally embrace that.”
Find Mary Skinner on Facebook at IrenaSendlerFilm.
HELEN ZELON is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in New York, City Limits, Scientific American and Ms.
Read more inspiring 9/11 stories: When Life Forces You to Reinvent
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